On 21 September, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry heard oral submissions re the controversial proposal to re-label Israeli products emanating from disputed territories in the West Bank. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) was one of three organisations that made presentations to the Committee, the others being the SA Zionist Federation and Open Shuhada Street. I was tasked with making the SAJBD’s presentation, which can be viewed in full on our website (www.jewishsa.co.za). Representatives of all the main parties in Parliament were in attendance and participated in the debate.
After over a year of being stonewalled by Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies regarding this issue, it was most encouraging to have the opportunity of participating in this important consultation. The debate itself was conducted in a constructive and respectful manner, even if there were many points of disagreement amongst those taking part. It concluded with a decision to call for further submission from the stakeholders. These would outline what were the minimal requirements that each felt would be satisfactory in resolving the matter, following which a consultative process would identify acceptable solutions going forward. Parliamentary Chairperson Joanmarie Fubbs concluded the meeting by saying, “We ask for these written inputs, then we will brief the Minister making him aware of our position as a committee”.
In light of this, the SAJBD was astounded to learn that Minister Davies had already published a Final Notice on labeling of goods emanating from “Israeli Occupied Territory”. This was despite an explicit assurance from the Minister’s representative at the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meeting that there would “not be a final notice without talking to the public”. A date of 15 October was decided on with Chairperson Fubbs for these ‘minimum requirement documents’ to be submitted, and this was communicated to the Minister’s office. Despite this, the SAJBD was informed last week that the Minister would be issuing the Final Notice by 10 October 2012.
This latest circumvention of the consultation process is yet another example of Minister Davies’ evident obsession with forcing through this highly flawed and problematic piece of legislation come what may. Prior to this, he had shown his disdain for dissenting viewpoints, as shown by his ignoring no fewer than 33 requests from the SAJBD to meet with him on the issue. Only after issuing the initial Notice did he deign to meet with the representative leadership of the Jewish community, and on that occasion was so pointedly hostile and dismissive of our concerns as to make any meaningful engagement impossible. It would seem that the written submissions made thereafter by the SAJBD and a number of other organisations, all of which are carefully thought out and detailed documents prepared in consultation with leading experts in the field of trade law, have been simply disregarded. He was quoted two months ago as saying that the labeling was a `done deal’. Now, the Minister has seen fit to ignore not only the representations made by Jewish organisations and the objections of certain Opposition parties in Parliament, but even the considered view of his own Parliamentary Portfolio Committee that the Final Notice should be delayed until proper public participation process have taken place.
The SAJBD was much encouraged by the Portfolio Committee’s willingness to listen to its concerns and to try and find constructive solutions ensuring that consumer protection would be achieved without resorting to unnecessarily inflammatory and politicized terminology that run contrary to the principles of the World Trade Organisation’s Rules of Origin. Regrettably, the same willingness to listen and engage with the issues has not been forthcoming from the Minister’s office. His belief that there is “no need for further consultation with anyone” speaks volumes in terms of his lack of commitment to public participation. His comment that “I will tell you that the overwhelming thrust of most of the submissions was in the direction in which we headed” coupled with the contents of the Final Notice show that he has paid no cognizance whatsoever to our submissions. It is regrettable that Minister Davies has seen fit not only to sideline the Jewish community, but also to undermine a very constructive Parliamentary process that could have resulted in a positive outcome for all. As South African citizens, we can only deplore his unrelenting zeal with pursuing his personal political agendas to the detriment of public participation and consumer protection in our country.
This opinion piece first appeared in the Cape Argus on 16 October 2012